Long Term Impact of Trauma-Children Being Separated from Parents at the Borders and PTSD
Back in 2007 I was visiting a hospital in Uganda and, as I was leaving, I heard the most haunting cry and turned around to see a young mother kneeling under a tree wailing. I asked the translator: “what is happening to her”? He said: “She lost her child. She is crying because her child died.” Her cry shook my core with anguish and I can still hear her sometimes. When I heard young children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border last week my heart memory took me back to that heart-wrenching, gut-punching sound of loss and despair. That’s the thing about traumatic memories; they flare up at random times and, also, based on specific triggers.
Unfortunately, I have heard cries of horror in my life many times before and I have also cried my own out — one of those cries paralyzed me with fear and one time I cried on a cold floor in a fetal position praying to God that my spirit would not vanish based on the realities before me.
I have lived through tremendous sorrow, loss and political turmoil in my life, and I know what it can do to people. Through this sharing, I would like to offer you a personal account on the long-term effects of trauma along with my perspective on what is happening to and with children at the border through the lens of lessons I have learned over the past three decades of my life.
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, I grew up a witness to Argentina’s Dirty War, when the military Junta overthrew the government and, in so doing, shaped and redefined my family’s history and my heart’s history.
Since 1982, when I was 8 years old, I have witnessed the worst of our world — armed conflict, persecution, rape, bullying, discrimination, torture, and human trafficking — sadly, I could keep going with this list. At the same time, however, I have also experienced seeing the best of our humanity: from mothers trying to get back into the workforce after domestic violence and youth striving through mentoring programs to STEAM education curricula in disenfranchised communities to individuals who have lost everything and everyone to wars and are creating value in their communities through businesses, to fathers holding their daughter’s hands while crossing street to friends around the globe coming together during the World Cup.
A series of critical incidents in my life have turned my world — my heart, thoughts, frameworks, lenses, actions, my entire being — upside down and I have spent my life gluing together the pieces of my inner world in an attempt to become whole again. I grew up in silence, not sharing or talking, about my experiences. After years of looking to prayer and therapy to make sense of several life-altering circumstances in my life, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 1999, at the age of 25.
The PTSD diagnosis liberated me in that for the very first time I was able to peg my life situations (thought-patterns, behaviors or symptoms) into categories and feel a sense of belonging. Yet, upon further understanding my diagnosis, I vividly remember feeling a sense of overwhelming loss, sadness, and anger pouring into and out of my soul.
In search for answers to the many whys in my life, I decided to walk with others who had experienced life-altering experiences and trauma in their lives. It was one way I could live out the sentiments of not-in-my-name and to act upon being the change I wanted to see in our world. My life became about living the words often used in human rights “Never Again”. To this end, I made the choice to work with individuals who had experienced political conflict and so I dove deep into the world of discrimination, oppression and racial inequity — among others — choosing to walk with those without a voice. My professional career took me to a world raddled by conflict and reconciliation, and it forced me to look into the universe that existed within me as I dealt with my own memories of trauma; this commitment to listen to others tell their stories forced me to find the words for my own narrative.
Another way to make sense of my trauma took place through an academic commitment to look at history. My search for words to make sense of my own story in light of the Argentinean Dirty War fueled my passion for educational answers that would provide me with historical perspectives to conflict, persecution and tensions. As an undergraduate student at Villanova University I majored in political science. While working on advocacy and issues related to the international rule of law, I began to reflect on how discussions in the United States — at least in my experience then (late ’90s) — continued to regard the Holocaust as the quintessential standard of human evil. As someone who did not grow up in the U.S. nor had Jewish roots, I wanted to learn more about that experience, the incendiary language that led to it and then conduct a comparative study as a graduate student on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Finally, as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, I chose to meld my personal experiences and professional background into an academic framework on post-trauma entrepreneurship because I believed then, as I do to this day, that stories of post-conflict rebuilding have not been considered from a business standpoint.
In search for even more answers after working in the field and seeking academic answers I realized I had to continue to turn inward and transcend my trauma. And, so the next stage of my evolution became about forgiveness, and it was then when my worlds came into one through spirituality. While my personal journey of resilience — persevering in the face of adversity — has made me “whole” in many wonderful ways and I have forgiven the culprits of it, a part of me still mourns the rupture that has anchored the trauma I experienced. 30 years later and for the very first time in my life, today I am now able to peg my life situations (thought-patterns, behaviors or symptoms) into categories and feel a sense of belonging. Yet, my PTS “d” diagnosis also served as a catalyst to search for not only the societal root causes of my trauma but also the personal memories that still fill my eyes with tears.
As someone whose career expands 20 years in the public interest and social impact sectors, one overarching approach in my career stems from my trauma-informed care (TIC) lens is to shift the question of “What’s wrong” with this person or organizations or communities or countries into “What’s happened” to this person/organization/community/country. This question requires a commitment to “peeling off the onion” that is needed to answer the often-time difficult implications related to: “How did we get here?”.
The hallmarks of a trauma-informed management practice and change agent lifestyle are anchored in a premise to put the realities of another’s traumatic experiences at the forefront when engaging with her and adjusts the response to it informed to by the individual’s trauma experience. Trauma informed care is about ensuring all individuals feel physically and emotionally safe, are noticed and listened to, and are given a voice. It connects a person’s behavior to their trauma response rather than isolating their actions to the current circumstances or assuming a character flaw.
From a TIC approach on where we are today, the question is not about ‘what’s wrong’ with parents bringing these children to the United States or leaving their countries. I believe the larger question on this is: “What’s happened” to them and, just as important, what’s happened to us as a nation.
Sharing memories as part of our heritage has been around for as long as oral traditions have shaped the fabric of our lives. Not many of us can relate to memories of children surviving the Holocaust, growing up in war zones or being a child on the border, but we are creating the memories we will pass on to our children and have the grace of history to help shape our hearts and minds. Is separating children at the border the legacy we want to leave behind?
Make no mistake about it, children forcibly separated from their parents has and will have long term impacts on them and their families in their personal development, and all of us in our cultural identify. More on the effects can be found here.
French Philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville poignantly stated: “America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
America is good, and we are good; it’s time to be an instrument of peace, dialogue and reconciliation. Will you join me?” #LightTheWay #EveryoneAPeacemaker